by ehistoryadmin on August 1, 2014

“I could see nothing except piles of dead Germans …”  – letters from the front

Liam Kenny

The month of November is associated with remembering the dead of World War one. At memorials throughout Britain – and to a lesser extent in Ireland – there are church services, silent parades and the laying of poppy wreaths.  The carnage of the First World War is incomprehensible such was the scale and ferocity of the killing. When statistics become almost meaningless in portraying the human toll in such a cataclysmic conflict the historian has to resort to more personal accounts from men who were first-hand witnesses to the death and destruction ion the frontline.

A good example of such first-hand witness testimony is to be found in the issues of the Kildare Observer for November 1914 which carries the lengthy correspondence of Sergt.Major Nicholas Byrne of the Irish Guards to his father Bartle Byrne of Stephenstown near Two Mile House, Naas.

Soldier’s letter have to be treated with a degree of caution because of the presence of a censor in the background. And there is also the tendency for troops to euphemise their experiences so as not to alarm the folks at home. However the British Army censorship system was struggling to catch up with the vast correspondence from soldiers in the early weeks of the war.

Thus the letters of Sergt. Major Byrne ring true in their essential text and in fact his writing is revelatory on a whole range of fronts. To begin with his accounts of his battalion going into combat in the first few days of the war in August 1914 and of the subsequent fighting retreat south towards Paris vividly recreate the relentless tempo of modern warfare as the British and French troops fell back in front of the German onslaught. The German strategy to make a rapid attack on France was based on a concept known as the  “the Schlieffen Plan” which envisaged the Germans taking a big right hook through Belgium and swinging south through northern France, dividing east and west to encircle Paris.

But a fighting retreat fought by the British Expeditionary Force of which Byrne’s Irish Guards Battalion was in the van slowed the German advance. One of the locations where the British looked back from their retreat and turned to face the enemy was the small town of Landrecies.  On August 28th 1914, just three weeks into the war Byrne writes: “Our brigade – the 4th Brigade – retired south to a village named Landrecies. Two hours later the Germans began to shell the town and cut us off completely from the remainder of the British Army. We defended the town so gallantly that the Germans were not able to break through but were forced back.”

But there was a price to be paid – 14 of Byrne’s colleagues were killed and 80 wounded. His letter continues to reveal something of the personal danger in which he found himself in the chaos of battle: “I got lost with the pack animals and was very near walking into the German ranks. “ And some of the ghastliness of war is conveyed in his observation that while trying to find his comrades he “could see nothing but piles of dead Germans and some of their wounded had not been taken away.”

Byrne was lucky to survive the onslaught as he managed to escape the town’s shattered streets at 6.30 in the morning … a half an hour later the German’s shelled it to bits. His sense of relief is palpable. “Needless to say I shook hands with myself …” and, on a more serious note, he writes to his family in Two Mile House: “I hope God will spare my life to go to see you all again.”

At this point four weeks into the war the British and French forces are retreating fast from their positions near the Belgium border with the Germans snapping at their heels. Nicholas Byrne’s account of an army moving at a forced march on its feet stresses the challenging physical demands on each soldier.

He wrote home that a typical day involved waking up at 3am and after a hasty breakfast moving out at 3.30 am to begin a day of marching with ten minutes break in every hour. The autumn heat of northern France was punishing and the exhausted troops were given three hours from noon to catch up on sleep and then marched for another five hours before setting up camp for the night having been on their feet for thirteen hours. However camp did not bring shelter from the pursuing Germans and Byrne writes in big print on a letter “ A GERMAN SHELL HAS JUST BURST  so I will have leave this letter till later.”

Byrne found himself in the frontline of the series of fighting retreats known as the “retreat from Mons.” His unit of Irish Guards was at the rear the British forces withdrawing to Paris so it was up the Irish Guards to frustrate the German advance.

His letters give a vivid picture of the kind of endurance needed for warfare on the move: “ Yesterday, for instance, we started at 2a.m and finished at 11pm, fought a hard fight for five hours in addition to marching 26 miles.” Some of the men were so fatigued that they fell asleep on guard duty oblivious to the bullets flying around them. A few days later Byrne reported that his unit had marched 232 miles in all and had fought three battles.

There was no doubting his animosity for the Germans. He calls them “savages” who showed no mercy to “any of our unfortunate fellows who fell into their hands.”

He continued “the Germans are demons … They cut to pieces our wounded men and poison the water on us. They have cut the hands off some of our doctors and Medical Corps men…” Whether this was part of soldier folklore or not it engendered a policy of no mercy in him as regards the German opposition: “We mowed the enemy down like hay before a machine.” 

Nicholas Byrne no doubt enjoyed many a days mowing in the pastoral landscape of east Kildare in his early years – a place as peaceful as one could imagine. Little could he have dreamt that he would be using a metaphor from that seasonal farming task to describe gunning down other men in vast numbers. Such is the pity of war.

Leinster Leader 5 November 2013, Looking Back, series No. 356. 


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